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Backstory: 'Pondemonium' is hockey at its purest

Pond hockey tournaments evoke a time when kids shoveled rinks and skated for hours in wool caps, through wisps of condensed breath.

By Jim KlobucharCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2006


Imagine organizing a familial reunion on a frozen lake and nearly 800 people show up.

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Imagine each one coming with a hockey stick and skates. Pair them off in teams of four against four and send them out into the Minnesota winter. Station one nonskating referee outside the retaining boards at each of 24 rinks and make room for claques of next of kin to stand in the snow to watch and pound their heavy mittens in support. Make sure a medical attendant is on call. Then courteously advise the contestants to play hockey with zeal - but without actual mayhem.

All of this was done over the weekend on one of the treasured Minneapolis chain of lakes. The result was an end-to-end, unconditional love-in.

The event, the 2006 US Pond Hockey Championships, was described by its sponsors as the largest pond hockey tournament ever produced in the United States. Undoubtedly it was, given the relatively modest field of rivals. The teams spread over three generations and a half dozen states, but predominately Minnesota. They came as clans of believers, all of them committed to ice hockey as the one passion of their recreational lives and, for a few of them, their professional lives. Some had played hockey for five or six years, some for more than 60. What they shared beyond their devotion to the game itself was a sentimental remembrance of its origins on the ice ponds of their childhood.

If you looked closely beneath the helmets and face masks at Lake Calhoun last Saturday and Sunday, you might have recognized a former US senator, Wendell Anderson of Minnesota, waiting for his shift in his gold jersey and the obvious gratitude of onlookers for his 73 years. You might also have identified Brian Bellows, a veteran of years in the National Hockey League. You might have been surprised to see a mite of a young woman, Sarah Simpson, 18, at 95 pounds and 4 feet 10 inches playing against muscular veterans of intercollegiate hockey. The guys weren't going to be steamrolling her. This was strictly nonbrute hockey. It was skate and skate, without goalies, without blue lines, four-on-four, no whistles. And they reveled in it. Why?

"Let me tell you," Mr. Anderson says. He was once one of the popular public figures in Minnesota: governor, then senator, then a defeated senator, and now back in law practice. But first he was a defenseman at the University of Minnesota and then a member of the silver-medal-winning American team in the 1956 Olympics - from beginning to end a man for whom the camaraderie of ice hockey has been his expression of personality. He's also one of its jesters. "I'll tell you why so many of the guys here, and the women, for that matter, talk with so much joy about those years of pond hockey, why they romanticize it. They were kids, the game wasn't structured. They weren't under pressure. They just played it and they saw the open ice, and they could skate with the wind and be creative."